Indonesia's Jails are Notoriously Over-Crowded. But an 'Open Prison' Isn't the Fix We Need

There are way too many people locked up for petty crimes.
A prison guard stand beside prisoners who escaped from the Sialang Bungkuk jail in Pekanbaru, Riau. Photo by Antara/FB Anggoro via REUTERS

Indonesia's law ministry wants to build a novel prison—one without bars—in the suburbs of Jakarta in what ministry officials called an attempt to "change society's perception of criminals." The new "open prison" is more camp than penitentiary—a sprawling 30-hectare complex complete with residences, park space, a public hall, and a garden for 5,000 "low risk" inmates.

"We don't want to discriminate against them," Law and Justice Minister Yasonna Laoly told the Jakarta Globe during the ground-breaking ceremony in Tangerang's Ciangir village. "Anyone can move here. Our aim is to change our own paradigm toward [the treatment of] people behind bars."


The construction of the open prison camp is expected to take two years. Upon completion, it will employ 500 prison guards, or about one for every 10 inmates. Only those who can pass a rigorous vetting process will be allowed to serve out there sentence at the open prison, Yasonna told local media.

"There will be an assessment for the inmates," the minister said. "For example, if it's a theft case, but it doesn't tick all the 'open prison requirements,' then it won't pass. We want to change society's perception of criminals."

The ministry says the open prison model is a way to relieve the country's over-crowded prisons. Nationwide, most of Indonesia's prisons are operating with too few guards and way too many inmates. One prison, located in the city of Pekanbaru, in Riau province, was 500 percent over-capacity last May when 448 inmates escaped into the forest. The prison break started as a jailhouse brawl when hundreds—literally hundreds—of inmates crammed into a single room started to fight with the guards. In the commotion, someone snuck out of the cell and broke through the prison's gates.

About 155 inmates are still missing. But even without these men, the prison would still be dangerously over-capacity. At the time of the prison escape there were 1,800 inmates crammed into a facility built for 300 people.

Local residents peer into a tunnel dug under the wall of Bali's Kerobokan prison in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia, on June 19, 2017. Photo by Antara/Nyoman Budhiana via REUTERS

Nationwide, the country currently has 153,312 inmates and facilities for 122,144, according to data compiled by the Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (ICJR). And those prisons were overseen by less than half the wardens the country actually needs. According to the Ministry of Law and Human Rights own data, there were about 30,000 wardens working in a given year. How many does the ministry think the country needs? About 61,000.


Prison breaks are now shockingly common. In Bali, prisoners recently dug a tunnel through the sewage ditch and, at least one of them, escaped overseas. In Papua, they just scaled the prison walls.

But the solution here isn't building a bigger prison, it's not arresting so many people, experts said. Indonesia's criminal code is notoriously harsh in all the wrong directions. There's a saying someone once told me to describe the situation: the state is soft as a kitten when it goes up, and fierce as a tiger when it goes down—meaning that regular citizens accused of petty or non-violent crimes often face sentences far harsher than their crimes would typically warrant.

Take the 15-year-old boy who faced five years in prison for swiping a police officer's flip-flops from a mosque. Or the 14-year-old detained for pocketing a cell phone top-up card worth Rp 20,000 ($1.50 USD). Or the 63-year-old grandmother sentenced to 15 months in prison for walking off with a piece of wood she found lying on the ground of a teak plantation near her house.

There are an estimated 29,000 Indonesians serving time on seriously long sentences for petty, nonviolent crimes like pickpocketing, according to reports in the New York Times. The same report found that half of all inmates were jailed for drug offenses. The country's courts are so eager to jail people that the country's prison population grows by an average of 15,000 to 20,000 inmates per year for the last ten years.


A villager living near the prison and anti-riot police stand guard in front of the Sialang Bungkuk jail after a recent jail break. Photo by Antara/Rony Muharrman via REUTERS

If Indonesia's law officials really want to lessen over-crowding in the nation's prisons, then they should instruct police and judges to stop sentencing so many people to prison terms, said Erasmus Napitupulu, a researcher at ICJR.

"The problem is not the open prison's system itself, but the government's inadequate imprisonment policy," Erasmus told VICE. "The Indonesian government loves to imprison people, even for petty crimes. It's no wonder that our jails are over crowded."

The ministry should be focused on rehabilitation of convicted criminals to make sure they have options to earn a legal living once they're released. But the problem is even bigger than bad over-punitive policies, Erasmus said. The government needs to reform its entire prison system if it's serious about addressing the problem.

"The government needs to think of alternatives aside from just building prisons," Erasmus told VICE. "If the criminal system still relies so much on prisons, then the same problems will keep occurring. What about social work or conditional punishment? Perpetrators of light, non-violent crimes shouldn't always end up in jail."

The country's criminal code, a long and often out-dated document, has been up for review for years. One of the biggest issues with the country's laws, according to criminal law expert Erdianto Effendi, is that every violation carries a jail sentence.

"Not every problem can be solved by putting people in jail," Erdianto said. "Prison is supposed to be about rehabilitation, not banishment."